First base has not gone according to plan for the Yankees this season. Greg Bird was supposed to start, with Chris Carter backing him up. Tyler Austin would wait in the wings at Triple-A, ready to fill in when needed. Things went astray on the eve of spring training though, when Austin fractured his foot. Bird had an outstanding March, but a foul ball off the ankle right before Opening Day eventually landed him on the disabled list. Carter, well, he just plain stunk for most of the season to date.
I, however, bring you good news. Bird’s return is imminent. “I think I’m really close,” he said to the New York Daily News. I truly believe that his injury was responsible for his slow start to the season. While spring training numbers are unreliable in terms of predicting future performance, he was too good in March to completely forget how to hit. Adding a healthy Bird to the lineup will make an already formidable offense more threatening.
When the time does come for Bird to re-join the Yankees, it would be tempting to jettison Carter. The team could bring up a healthy Austin to serve as the backup first baseman, but that might not be the best option. Right now, it would serve the Yankees’ best interest to hang on to Carter. They can go back to square one and execute their original strategy. This makes sense on a number of levels.
Despite only coming in as a defensive replacement on Friday night against the Orioles, Carter’s bat has come around of late. Since June 1st, he’s hit .238/.273/.571 with two home runs. That works out to a 120 wRC+. Those numbers aren’t sterling, but compared to the production the Yankees received earlier this season, they play just fine. If he can adjust as a part-time player and produce at that level, then the Yankees have a quality backup first baseman.
It’s also worth noting that Carter tormented reigning Cy Young Rick Porcello on Wednesday night. In addition to swatting a three-run home run in fourth inning, he also made a loud out to deep right field. Mookie Betts narrowly made the catch. This came a day after Carter took Drew Pomeranz deep for a solo shot. It appears that he rediscovered his power swing.
At the same time, the Yankees activated Austin off the disabled list and optioned him to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where he had previously been rehabbing. In 12 games with the RailRiders Austin has hit .267/.327/.422 with one home run. That’s the equivalent of a 110 wRC+. While those numbers are okay, they’re coming against Triple-A pitching. He also has a sky-high 34.7% strikeout rate.
Management chose not to bring Austin up right away because they felt he needed more time. He missed the entirety of spring training, after all. A little more seasoning in the minor leagues wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world. Plus, with Bird on the way, it makes more sense for him to play everyday. He wouldn’t necessarily get that opportunity with the Yankees.
It’s not too often that teams get a reset button at a given position. That’s essentially what the Yankees have at first base now. They have the chance to turn back the clocks and carry out their initial strategy. Granted, all of this could change in an instance. Carter could crater once again, or Austin might force the issue. This is a fluid situation. Nevertheless, it would be worth seeing the original plan in action, even if just for a little while.